Adventures of a solo traveller: crossing Paris on one foot

I’m 50-something and have never been in ambulance – until last week that is.  And while I was no flashing light casualty – thank Goodness – it was a new adventure.  After five blissful days of reading, swimming and walking (oh yes, and eating very well) with my brother and his wife in Provence, I was on day two of a side trip to Avignon. And, for once, I hadn’t planned anything in advance but knew I wanted to make the most of the Festival.  The Avignon Festival is a huge two-week theatre festival originally founded in 1947. Running alongside the official ‘In’ Festival is the ‘Off’ Festival, offering hundreds of shows across theatre, dance, visual arts and music in multiple venues across the city.

Palais des Papes, Avignon

I was coming out of a performance of Molière’s L’Ecole des Femmes – in French no less – when I tripped on a step, caught my foot and wrenched my ankle back. Who knew it could be so excruciatingly painful, making me nauseous and dizzy? I tried not to f ‘n’ blind too loudly as I drew quite a crowd and the Red Cross volunteers came zipping over on their bikes.

Tearing those ligaments was more painful than breaking my wrist so I was very happy to discover that I hadn’t broken any bones when I was X-rayed in hospital. And on the plus side I’d basically got a free bone density test. Having spent all night in the Emergency Department of a French hospital with a family member last year, I knew what to expect: a long wait, some interesting characters – this time a woman delivering a three-hour monologue – and staff stretched to the limit. I felt hugely grateful to be otherwise well and able-bodied and not stuck in hospital in a war zone. And my sympathies were with the staff who were wearing T-shirts advertising they were on strike, no doubt for much-needed improved pay and conditions.

I was hungry when I got back in the taxi at 9.30 p.m. that night – lunch had been a bit of fruit and a biscuit on the run after doing a tour of the Palais des Papes.  One drawback to my Airbnb accommodation, just outside the city walls, was that it didn’t have a kitchen and was not well served by cafés and shops. I limped along until I found a shop with inviting pictures of avocados and tomatoes in the window, but when I got inside there were only dried goods, carbonated drinks, laundry powder, toiletries and ice creams. Channelling my inner Girl Scout, I bought a tin of tuna and four ice lollies in lieu of a bag of frozen peas to ice my ankle. It had to be that or the chicken nuggets. The only thing about ice lollies is that they melt quite quickly especially when stuck down one’s sock. Never mind, I put the remaining two in the mini bar fridge for the morning.

I lay awake with a throbbing foot that first night worrying how I would manage the train journey – in 31 hours’ time – from Avignon to Paris and Paris to London, what with my luggage, the long platforms and crossing Paris. I decided to start the day by icing my foot only to find the ice lollies had dissolved to a sticky orange puddle in the very un-cold fridge. Do minibar fridges ever work?!

Getting to the pharmacy was a bit laboured – while it seemed miles with a swollen and bruised foot, it wasn’t far enough to warrant a taxi or Uber. I stocked with an ankle support, arnica pills, painkillers and une canne anglaise (how interesting that crutches are called English canes!), the idea being that, when travelling, I could use one crutch to take the weight off my bad foot leaving one hand free to wheel my case. At least that’s what the travel insurance suggested when I had called at 3 a.m. to register my claim.

Then rather than sit in my room and fuss and fret, I asked my Airbnb host to give me a lift to the busy Place des Corps Saints as it would give me a choice of cafes and three theatres. And what a perfect place to hang out! Buzzing with life, people and performers plugging their shows either with flyers or bursts of song, trumpet notes, dances or outrageous costumes, it was one long spectacle. I treated myself to a hearty lunch (the highlight being the lavender-infused goats cheese panna cotta) in one café and then moved to a 1950s style bar for a cup of tea. That afternoon I went to see (foot conveniently propped up) an hour-long Offenbach ‘opera bouffe’– the Ile de Tulipan – a one-act comic operetta with some great duets that explores idea of gender, gender muddles and even the idea of same sex marriage. After a spell in another café, a pack of ice on my foot, I managed to get myself to one more show right around the corner from my accommodation. Il Nouvo Barbiere was full of farce, acrobatics and fun performed by some zany Italians – set, as the name suggests, in a barber shop. Perfect.

I didn’t manage to pre-book assisted travel for my return journey to London but, channelling my friend and erstwhile colleague Heather Ellis (see previous blog: https://wp.me/p3IScw-t0) who travelled solo by motorbike across Africa and the Silk Road, I decided to trust it would all work out, canne anglaise at the ready. And sure enough, the girl next to me on the platform in Avignon had only a small rucksack and offered to help with my case all the way through Paris and to Eurostar as she was also travelling through to the Gare du Nord.  What an angel. I was exhausted and sore on arrival in London but happy to have arrived back in one piece ready for a big family reunion weekend.  Avignon had worked out­ just a bit differently than envisaged: I’d seen some of the sites, had some interesting chats, seen five shows – each one un bon spectacle indeed – and had a free ride to hospital.

A room to call my own: Paris

The truth is, people, that staying with family and friends for weeks at a time – while full of blessings, love, connection, reminiscing, giggles and wonderfulness- ­­­­doesn’t afford the same restorative and mind-clearing opportunities that, say, a walking holiday in the Tuscan hills or a week by the beach might. And only ex-pats who trot back and forth to their country of origin get it; others think we are moaning Minnies! But visiting lots of people you don’t see on a regular basis involves a deep dive into lots of lives with all their ups, downs, highs, lows and challenges. Sometimes I find myself lying awake at night reflecting on all these various lives; it can be a bit enmeshing and involving and I sometimes find it hard to detach myself.

Enough of my preamble. Suffice it to say, I enjoyed having a base I could call my own for a few days in a tiny (and I mean tiny) one-room apartment in Vincennes in Paris, an eastern suburb just outside the Paris peripherique. From the outside it didn’t look that promising and my heart sank as I climbed the wooden staircase, plaster peeling off the walls, to the dark broom cupboard where I retrieved the key from the key safe. But, once inside, it was exactly as advertised; stylish, well equipped, comfortable and cosy with very clever use of the space and storage. The only thing it lacked was a fan, which given the intense heatwave, would have made sleep easier! On the upside, the severe canicule (heatwave) meant that the Forfait Anti-Pollution ticket on public transport made travel very cheap. And it was good to see a Government-backed scheme encouraging people to leave their cars at home.

Wandering out my first evening I took in my surroundings: a crêperie, a dressmaker’s/alteration place, a spirituality centre advertising a talk on life after death, a café, a plumber’s, a nail salon, a couple of independent grocer’s, some small dogs on leashes being dragged out for walks in the blistering heat, and even the railway sidings planted up with shrubs and flowers, the tall hollyhocks reminding me of an English border. What I love about Paris is that everywhere you look there’s something interesting; whether it’s a bright red geranium on a wrought-iron balcony, the ornate buildings – decorated with here a Roman head, there a lion or a swag of flowers, the characteristic round attic windows and the flatiron buildings.

The first night I enjoyed a delectable dinner in a local brasserie, the hot mousseline de poisson (fish terrine) something I have never eaten in England or Australia but, then again, I am not a frequenter of French restaurants.

Unable to eat all three courses, I chose fruit salad for pudding and took it back to my garret for breakfast. That morning I indulged in a bit of very gentle tourism, before meeting a friend for lunch,  and visited the Musée Nissim Camondo, a small but exquisite house museum overlooking the Parc Monceau. The house, modelled on the Petit Trianon at Versailles, was built in 1911 by Count de Camondo, a member of a wealthy Jewish banking family, to house his collection of eighteenth-century art and furniture and objects from the reign of Louis X1V.

Some of my favourite pieces were the Gobelin and Aubusson carpets and tapestries, a marquetry desk made of over ten different woods, a roll-top desk inlaid with porcelain plaques (one of only ten in the world), the dining room laid up with a silver service presented by Catherine the Great to her lover, and the display of Sèvres porcelain, the Buffon collection, decorated with exotic birds dating from the late 1700s. The Camondo story, though, is a tragic one, the collection, which Moïse bequeathed as a museum on his death, is all that survives of the family. His son Nissim died in action in the first World War and his daughter Beatrice and her two children died in Auschwitz.

On Saturday night I headed to a birthday barbeque my niece, Georgie, and her husband, Manu,  were hosting in their garden in the green and leafy, once communist suburb, of Fontenay-sous-Bois. We oldies – my sister, her husband and I – enjoyed chatting to the youngsters but the pièce de resistance had to the the three-tiered cake – Victoria sandwich with fresh raspberries – that my sister had brought over from London on the Eurostar! The same beloved sister that met me for breakfast at Kings Cross Station at 7 a.m. the Sunday in May I flew in from Perth.  She’s a champ.On Sunday morning we headed off to the more ethnic 20th arrondissement to the Bellevilloise, an art nouveau cultural centre, once a cooperative – hence the warehouse-y feel – founded in 1877 also housing a café and restaurant. We were there for Georgie’s 30th birthday jazz brunch and we feasted like kings on the all-you-can-eat buffet. Even though weary from the night before and full of food, I insisted that we made a detour to the nearby Père Lachaise Cemetery, resting place of so many notable people and surely a perfect place for the spiritualists’ talk on life after death?

I dragged the family around with me, determined to the last – I’m like that – it’s an annoying perfectionist streak – tofind the tomb of at least one famous person.

My sister and I in Pere Lachaise

We did eventually find Oscar Wilde’s, although it didn’t really live up to the hype!  And for some years it’s been enclosed behind protective glass to prevent Wilde fans defiling it with lipstick-mouthed kisses. Ah well, at least we ticked it off! The most fascinating thing about Père Lachaise is that when it was first built in 1804, it was considered too far from the city and not well used so the administrators decided to attract more custom by moving the remains of some famous names starting with Molière and La Fontaine. Clearly a successful marketing strategy!

Not Oscar’s but another tomb that caught my eye

As I write this I am on the train – the wonderful TGV – heading towards Provence (tall cypresses that remind me of Van Gogh landscape visible in the distance). Provence means it’s time to pause, time to hang up my tools and let my mind go fallow. No more blogs for a bit – maybe I’ll even do a digital detox!

Wandering down Memory Lane

It’s been a week of reminiscing – meeting up with two university friends after a gap of 32 years and visiting Oxford, my home from 1997 to 2002.  The amazing thing about meeting Victoria and Charlotte (la otra Carlotta – we all read modern languages at Bristol) was that we just picked up where we left off. And, yes, we’ve all aged but, conversely, we all looked exactly the same. What had changed was our choice of food and drink. Prosecco wasn’t the drink du jour back then, fancy grains like quinoa hadn’t come to the West and spiralized didn’t exist as a verb and certainly not when teamed with vegetables!

I received the warmest of welcomes from my friends Hilary and John in Oxford. Freshly picked roses and a selection of hand creams by my bed, a kettle and a supply of herb teas in my room along with a stack of interesting books including Rose Tremain’s memoir, Rosie. How I love my creature comforts! Drinks and nibbles in their stylish garden followed by a delightful dinner was the perfect prelude to a good sleep.  Breakfast the next morning was beautifully laid-up with gluten-free cereal and bread, sliced mango and pomegranate and a pot of Cooper’s Oxford Marmalade. Luxury.

On Saturday morning Central Oxford was heaving with shoppers, tourists, students, day-trippers, school kids, buskers and performers – you name it. I met Juliette – I worked with her husband Giles at the Wildlife Trust and she and I used to sing in the same choir – and we wandered, chatting ceaselessly, through Christchurch Meadows where traditional England was in full swing: green striped lawns; punts gliding by; students in full regalia hurling themselves into the Isis to celebrate the end of exams; a cricket match in progress and cows grazing. We crossed over Magdalen Bridge and walked up a good stretch of East Oxford’s Cowley Road, known for its more Boho and multi-ethnic scene, to a park where Giles was DJ-ing between bands. I wish I had had more time to hang out at the Florence Park Festival and tap into the earthy, folksy, eco-friendly, funky vibe. I caught a bit of music over some polenta chips before bussing back to Central Oxford to give myself a little break before the next chat fest.

Another delightful dinner with friends Tom and Annemarie that evening, this time in Kidlington. And in a belated celebration of the summer solstice we sat outside after dinner overlooking a scruffy field, a donkey sanctuary (I also spotted a fox slope by), warmed by a crackling fire with the occasional bat flying over.

On Sunday I caught up with two girlfriends, Anne and Michele, and in the afternoon we all went for a walk through the fields (one of the things I miss most about living in Australia) starting in the village of Stonesfield and ending in Coombe. The walk so carefully planned by Anne ticked every box and more: green fields with red kites wheeling overhead; hedgerows dotted with fragrant elderflower and dog rose; a gently flowing river; country cottages adorned with blowsy climbing roses (lots of these); AND the ruins a 4th Century AD Roman villa in North Leigh, once one of the largest in Britain.

And the highlight: a section of a surviving Mosaic floor complete with patterns of leaves, knots, stylised pots and a swastika or ‘Greek Key’ pattern possibly serving as a maze to ward off evil spirits. The colours of the stone tesserae have faded, but it’s easy to imagine the original blues and reds and the wealthy Romans lounging around on couches, enjoying the underfloor heating.

I could have done with underfloor heating in my Oxford terrace, a rather hotchpotch house full of quirks and wonky angles, and not nearly as light and airy as my house in Australia. The energy always felt a bit stagnant – not helped by rivers of condensation that poured down the north-facing front window in winter. I recall an alternative health practitioner – Dr J – who I consulted in my digestive disaster days attributing my health imbalances to geopathic stress! Something to do with  underground nuclear testing since the Second World War causing splits in the earth’s crust. He said it was often present in people with syndromes and illnesses that failed to respond to other treatments, and who were living in damp or mouldy houses, plagued by wasps, bees or ants.  That was my house to a tee including invasions by wasps and bees nesting in the attic in summer.

Driven by an overwhelming urge to visit my old house – lifting the lid on the past is seductive and is maybe a subconscious desire to take stock of the present – I knocked on the door on Sunday afternoon. Sadly, I had just missed the current owner but I managed to peek through the window and saw that she’s put in a new kitchen and got rid of the cat-scratched carpets and replaced them with polished boards. I caught up with the neighbours on each side, both still living in Islip Rd, and found out my house has also had a loft conversion.  One can only hope that the makeover has driven out any geopathic radiation and ushered in feelgood vibes!

My house is/was the first on the left

Returning to my mother’s house talked out and ready for a rest – it gets very intense jumping into so many people’s different lives and absorbing and integrating information – I went to make a cup of tea after lunch only to find the kitchen windowsills teaming with ants. Geopathic Stress?! Probably not, I’d put it down to Climate Change and the strange weather and humidity. I am off to Paris this weekend where the temperatures are going to be in the late 30s, quite a change from today’s cloudy 19 degrees!

 

 

 

 

 

Scarecrows, Sprockers and State Visits

Have you ever thought about the history of scarecrows? I hadn’t but the 12th annual Ranskill and Torworth Scarecrow Festival – a village fundraiser close to where my mother lives in Nottinghamshire – prompted me to do some research. The Egyptians were the first to make wooden scarecrows in the likeness of deities to deter the birds from eating grain. In medieval Britain children would walk through the fields throwing stones at birds raiding the crops but when the Black Plague decimated the population in 1348, there weren’t enough people to work in the fields so they made scarecrows out of straw with turnips or gourds for heads.

I always think of that song in Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat (still one of my favourite musicals of all time) Stone the Crows, the one that comes after Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream:

Well, stone the crows
This Joseph is a clever kid
Who’d have thought that 14 cows
Could mean the things
He said, they did

And who remembers Worzel Gummidge, the TV series from the 70s and 80s, based on the books by Barbara Euphan Todd with John Pertwee aka Dr Who as Worzel, the scarecrow? I’ve just read that the BBC is filming a new adaption to be screened later in the year. There’s something very lovable about a scarecrow who comes to life and befriends children, getting up to tricks and mischief.

I didn’t count the scarecrows lining the roads around the two villages but there must have been a good fifty or more covering topics ranging from humour to history, cartoon characters, fiction, fantasy and fairy tale. Mum and I hopped on Wilfreda Beehive, a 1965 London Routemaster Bus, to view the exhibits in style.

Some of my favourites included three Spitting Image-style politicians: Theresa May, Jean Claude Juncker and Jeremy Corbyn, a policeman holding a hairdryer as a speed detector and a robed figure sitting on a chair entitled Mindfulness. Positioned atop trees and hedges along the route were knights on horseback, astronauts and children’s favourites such as Peppa Pig. A lot of fun.

But there was more: amid the stalls selling hand-crafted bags and natural skincare products there was a dog show and competition with categories including Gundogs, Working Dogs and Hounds, Pedigree, Pastoral and Toy, Good Looking Boy/Girl and Most Appealing Eyes. Drawn to the spaniels, I met several Bertie lookalikes. They were, in fact, sprockers – a mix of cocker and spring spaniel. Bertie is the result (one of ten) of an accidental mating between a field spaniel and a cocker spaniel. What does make him? A focker, a flocker? The mind boggles. That same day I accompanied Mum to St Peter’s Church in nearby Clayworth, home to theTraquair Murals by renowned Scottish Arts and Crafts artist Anna Traquair (1852-1936). I reckon Mum goes more for the social connection than any deep-rooted faith. The somewhat happy clappy vicar – it was Pentecost Sunday (reminding me of our/Australia’s Pentecostal PM, Scott Morrison) – challenged us to reflect whether we were ready for God’s Kingdom on earth. The lady in the front pew assented with a vigorous YES and clapped her hands in the penultimate hymn. Mum, meanwhile, whispered all too loudly, that the service was going on way too long and she hoped there wouldn’t be yet another hymn. There was. I enjoyed a bit of time out to reflect, count my blessings (excuse the pun) and admire the fabulous murals.

Not to be defeated by the rain, we also visited Retford’s local museum housed in a handsome Georgian mansion. A mix of various private collections – china, glass etc – and displays of bygone eras, I enjoyed the Second World War Kitchen, the cabinet full of lotions, potions and medicines such as Dr MacLean’s Stomach Powder and the Victorian schoolroom. Although once a thriving market town (granted its first charter by Henry III in 1246) and then a coal-producing centre connected by a network of canals, it’s gone rather downhill and is now full of shops such as Primark and Poundstretcher.

There’ve been some afternoon naps – I’ve bagged what was Dad’s reclining chair and plugged in a little hot pad in an attempt to create a sun lounger experience. I’ve done lots of cooking and, to Mum’s delight, tried recipes that I have collected over the years with only one culinary flop so far. And all this against the backdrop of the ongoing Brexit debacle: no deal, a revised deal, a postponed deadline, proroguing Parliament, a General Election, scrapping Brexit or remaining. It’s chaos. And the way the Conservative party leader selection process is going, it looks like the UK and the US will each will be ruled by blond blusterers with bad haircuts. I met a lady on the train to London who was on the Conservative Executive Committee under Thatcher and was injured in the Brighton Hotel bombing in 1984. She knows Boris and insists that the buffoonery is all an act and that he is a shrewd player. Let’s hope she’s right!

Trump, of course, basked in the attention, pomp and ceremony surrounding his State Visit to the UK (labelling anti-Trump protests as fake news) to mark the extraordinarily emotional 75th Anniversary of the D-Day landings. Britain being Britain, he was highly criticised for his sartorial faux-pas with the vest of his white-tie outfit way too long under the jacket. Then there was the errant h in his spelling of the Prince of Whales and his vicious verbal attack on the Mayor of London. By contrast, the Queen so dignified and chipper and doing her bit for that so-called special relationship between the two countries.

 

The Republic of Words 1 of 3: Pie and Mash down the Roman Road

“How’s retirement?” “How’s the lady of leisure?” friends asked when I left a busy job at the end of March to take time-out to pause, refresh and reflect. Not surprisingly, it took a while to come off the million-miles-an-hour adrenal whirl, and I struggled to carve out leisure time amid catching up on everything I had neglected in favour of work. Every time I tried to create some lazy space something or somebody would butt in.  Relaxing and letting go takes practice!

Swimming against the tide – jumping out of work at my stage of life  – has its challenges. But whenever, I fidget and fret, wondering how, why, what, what if and what next, I’ve been experimenting with embracing whatever emerges. Instead of being goal-driven and pushing ahead with an agenda, I am seeing what happens if I open up to receiving life, wisdom and guidance in whatever forms it takes. My biggest treat when I let go of the to-do list is sitting on the sofa, drinking tea and reading with Bertie nestled beside me. T

In a recent radio interview journalist Louis Theroux  described he environment he grew up in as a  Republic of Words. I’ve decided to borrow that – books are my current credo, my anchor, my therapy, relaxation and intellectual stimulation. And each book I have read so far has resonated or contained some kind of message.

The first book, Pie and Mash down the Roman Road: 100 Years of life in one East End Market, tapped into my English heritage – in much the same way as an exhibition entitled: Royal Portraits: from the Tudors to the Windsors –  and my fascination with history and the cultural, social and political movements that have shaped my country of origin and who I am.

The Roman Road is the oldest trading route in Britain and, around 1900, stalls extended for a mile. The  book follows the lives of key families who lived, ate, worked, married and had kids in East End. The pie makers, tram drivers, eel dealers, printers, barrow-makers, Billingsgate porters, dockers, costermongers, the lady who looked after the public toilets, Sylvia Pankhurst (Emmeline’s daughter,  leader of the Suffragette movement) and the notorious Kray Twins.

by Melanie McGrath

G.Kelly’s Pie and Mash shop at 526 Roman Rd in Bow is another fixture  – the business has been in the same family for nearly 100 years.  I lived in London for nine years in the late ’80s and early ’90s but have to confess I’ve never eaten pie (minced beef), mash and liquor (which is a mix of flour, water and parsley). The Romans first introduced meat in a pastry envelope to Britain and they got it from the Greeks who probably got it from the Egyptians! That same global thread is mirrored in the waves of migrants who have populated the East End. And what a rich mix from Protestant Huguenot weavers in the 17th Century to the migrants from Ireland, Italy and Portugal, Jews from the Iberian Peninsula and then in the late 19th Century Eastern European Jews fleeing the pogroms. By the 1950s the Jamaicans were coming in, and in the 70s it was the turn of the Bangladeshis. Research suggests that sub-Saharan Africans, who were sold as slaves to planters and colonial officials in the 17th and 18th centuries, have been living in London from the 12th Century.

The other migrants are the eels of stewed and jellied fame, whose complex lifestyle sees them travel across the Atlantic Ocean before they reach the coasts of Europe as young eels, from where they head up rivers and streams and, as mature eels, migrate over 3000-miles back to their spawning grounds in the Sargasso Sea. The author Melanie McGrath has done extensive research both of people and place, and I learnt that eels have been eaten since Anglo Saxon times. As well as being the food of the poor, they have a reputation as an aphrodisiac. One Aldgate eel dealer used to cry out: “Everyone’s a baby.”

Talking of babies, there’s mention of Nonnatus House, which, of course, features in Call the Midwife, a TV series based on the memoirs of a lay midwife who lived and worked with the nuns in Poplar, more than 60 years ago.

This book paints a picture of a strong community, based in hard work and resilience.  The East End was very badly hit in the Second World War – most of the 1.2 million homes lost in the Blitz of 1941 were here. The author describes the area around Kelly’s pie shop in 1945 as resembling “a bad set of dentures; discoloured, smelly and uneven, full of gaping holes.”. As the rubble and slums were cleared, however, and new high-rise developments came in, the easy access to the market, the dance halls, social clubs, dog tracks, pubs and lidos disappeared.

For all the mod cons including indoor bathrooms, the new tower blocks lack the community spirit of the streets where grandmothers sat out on their stoops, peeling vegetables and chatting, and children played hopscotch. And the high rises are no good when the electrics fail. When Rita Willets goes into labour in 1964, she’s living on the 14th floor, the lift doesn’t work and her husband can’t reach the runs at Nonnatus house by phone. In the olden days, the street grapevine would have summoned someone to help. Someone like Marian Old, who worked at the Bryant & May match factory and, although too young to take part, recalled the first all-female strike of 1888 when women campaigned for better pay and conditions. Before conditions improved, women fell victim to ‘phossy jaw’, phosphorus poisoning that resulted in fluorescent vomit and jawbones disintegrating. Men and women alike did it hard in those days; Martha supplemented her wages with egg box-making, midwifery and pickling onions.

Another of my favourite characters is Ron Moss who grew up on Fish Island, now redeveloped as part of the Olympic Park, then a river backwater. Known as the Artful Dodger, he came from a poor family and lived by his wits quickly learning to leaf (Cockney rhyming slang for thief: tea leaf = thief). He forages for food, snares rabbits, steals swans’ eggs and fish from the river and on market days along the Roman he pinches sausages and other food, which he hides in his long-pocketed coat.

Then there’s Marian Old who cleans the toilets and loves her work. She is her own boss and sings while she mops and cleans. She has cups of teas with her regulars and keeps up with all the gossip, even giving sartorial advice as women and girls try on garments they have bought in the market. “She’s grown accustomed to handing out everything from fashion to family to romance advice with the sheets of crispy, disinfectant-smelling Izal paper.” The East End is well known as the home of London’s Rag Trade. Interestingly, the children’s rhyme Pop Goes the Weasel references the manufacture of clothing: Pop is a cockney term for pawn, a weasel both slang for the yarn-winding machine and part of ‘weasel and stoat’, cockney rhyming slang for coat. Incidentally, my father referred to champagne as weasel – as in popping corks!

Redevelopment since the Second World War has changed the social fabric of the East End considerably – Bryant & May’s was converted into one of London’s first gated communities of apartments in the ’80s, and, more recently, areas such as Docklands and the Isle of Dogs have become home to glittering tower blocks, with some areas yuppified and others hippified (think smashed avo and artisan coffee instead of pie and mash). And, yet, the old East End survives in patches; Kelly’s Pie and Mash shop at 526 Roman Road is still going strong albeit catering to contemporary palettes (chicken and leek pie and vegetarian options) and under renovation.

The author explains the pull of pie and place for customers all over the world searching “for a taste of the past that still lives vividly inside them, or that they may hardly recall or only know from older relatives but to which they nevertheless feel viscerally connected.” That neatly describes how I feel about England – which is why I so loved this book.  Much as I love my life in Australia, you can’t take the Brit out the girl – there’s an essence of Englishness that sits in my DNA. I am heading back to Britain soon and a trip to the East End is definitely on my list.

Here we go a-truffling

When I booked onto a truffle hunt with my dog Bertie, I pictured him scampering around in the orchard and sniffing out a mature Tuber Melanosporum aka a Perigord Black Truffle. That’s because Field Spaniels – Bertie is half Field and half Cocker Spaniel – are being bred specifically for the truffle industry. Field Spaniels are renowned for their hunting skills and exceptional noses. When Bertie was a puppy and we attended puppy pre-school at the vets, he quickly located where the treats were. While the other dogs wriggled around on people’s knees, Bertie maintained a hypervigilant eye and nose on the prize.  His olfactory system never sleeps – even a short trip around the block will usually yield an edible find. He once shot off across the beach­ – leaving me panicked that he would run onto the road – hot on the scent of a sausage sizzle hosted by a party of Rotarians. He would have made an excellent sniffer dog. In fact, he could have excelled in many different nose-based careers.

As it is, he is a much-loved and over-indulged pet. Which is why we booked onto a Truffle Hunt organised by a company called Gourmet Pawprints offering ‘pawfect’ food and wine experiences for people who like to take their dogs along for the ride. As befits a canine-centric business, the dogs are guaranteed a window seat on ‘Bella the Bus’ (Kerry, the owner of Gourmet Pawprints, not only runs the business but also drives the bus!) and are greeted with a goody bag of treats. Bert sat across from Penny, a skittish but adorable Dalmatian (one of two on the trip), and Iggy, a well-behaved black lab. At one point, Penny barked which lead to a Mexican wave of barks across the bus, reminding me of a classic read from my childhood, The Starlight Barking by Dodie Smith.

I once dreamt that Bertie accompanied me on a trip back to Britain. In my dream there were sofa beds – you know the ones with the pull-out metal frame – and the dogs slept underneath.  Wishful thinking on both accounts; you’d only find a sofa-sized bed in First Class (dream on Charlotte) and from a cost and quarantine perspective, taking Bertie on holiday to Britain would be totally impractical. I do love to imagine him, however, running across babbling brooks and green fields criss-crossed by dry stone walls in somewhere like Derbyshire (where I was born) or Yorkshire.  But travelling up to Daylesford by bus – Bertie kindly let me share his double seat on the way back – on a Wuthering Heights-type wet and wintry day came a close second.

Our destination was Black Cat Truffles just outside Creswick, and we were greeted with oozingly rich truffle-infused d’affinois cheese and a glass of sparkling wine – just an hour earlier we had had chocolate brownies and coffee in Ballan! We learnt that truffles are the edible fruiting bodies of fungi that grow underground in a symbiotic relationship with the roots of host trees such as hazlenut and oak, most typically in low nutrient soils with a high pH level. At Black Cat the orchard is planted with French and English Oaks and the truffle dog is a trained Labrador named Ella. She had already sniffed out where the mature truffles were located, and the owners Andres and Lynette had marked the trees with a ribbon.

Thankfully the rain let up and ushered in a brief sunny spell just long enough for us to get up close and personal with the truffles. We were invited to kneel and sniff the soil before digging up a few spectacular specimens; mine was the size of a cauliflower and would have commanded a price of about $1000 on the market.  It’s hard to capture the distinctive aroma of a truffle in words; it’s strong, woody, earthy, pungent, heady and sticky sweet.

Needless to say, none of the dogs got a look-in when it came to walking around the truffière. The environment in the orchard needs to be carefully controlled and protected – we had to dip our boots in disinfectant. Instead the dogs got their own special treasure hunt in an adjacent paddock and had fun unearthing treats.

After sampling and/or buying truffle butter, truffle salt and truffle honey in the shop, it was time to move on for lunch at the Farmer’s Arms in Creswick. The entire menu – bar the wine – was truffle-infused from the charcuterie platter to the main course of barramundi or beef cheek. But it was the honey truffle panna cotta with a berry coulis that stole the show. The sweetness of the honey and the earthiness of the truffle shavings (spot the black dots in the photo) were perfect foils for the cooked cream.

While we had been feasting, the dogs were treated to massages and edible treats on the bus. With the dogs relaxed after their pampering session, and the humans sated and soporific after rich food and fine wine, there was much dozing on the way home. That’s what’s so enjoyable about a tour; it’s all done for you and you can sit back and let the day unfold – no map-reading, thinking or organising needed. Pawfect indeed.